US Congresspeople shake hands with Netanyahu 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stelios Varias)
Five speeches and 29 Congressional standing Os later, the world is still
searching for progress amid the rhetoric. Although President Barack Obama
(two speeches) and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (three speeches including
one in Jerusalem) took to the podiums with minimal expectations, hope held out
on the streets of Israel and the Palestinian territories through the final
dissipation of applause echoing through the House chamber that the conventional
wisdoms would be defied and a robust olive branch would be revealed.
be fair, the sixth speech – the one not made by Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas – should figure into the mix if “what coulda’ been” is the focus.
Still, one should not be quick in dismissing this past week as insignificant. A
lot has transpired. Just not what many had hoped.
It is axiomatic in the
Middle East that progress is inversely proportional to visibility. The real
breakthroughs are forged behind closed doors and revealed to the public as faits
accomplis. Open events, such as major addresses, require great scrutiny to
uncover consequences – good and bad, short and long-term. So once the
high-profile, public route was invoked, it became fair game to ask whether the
Israeli and Palestinian streets felt any closer to peace – or security –
following the talkfest. Apparently not. But that doesn’t mean the week
was not valuable.
Take, for instance, the US-Israel relationship. Since
Obama and Netanyahu took power, their personal relationship, often described
from unsettled to tempestuous and worse, has frequently stolen attention from
the issues. In this context, the past week was cathartic. After Obama
sent chills throughout the Jewish state with his “Cairo II” speech, the streets
echoed a sense of unraveling of the state amid the feeling that its prime
minister had been outmaneuvered. When Obama assuaged those fears in his second
speech, a belief emerged across Israel’s political boundaries that Netanyahu
needed to respond with a bold and unambiguous gesture that would stymie Israel’s
harshest critics. The time was ripe. But it never came.
president and the prime minister clearly articulated their respective positions,
offered clarifications and course corrections, and demonstrated the realities
and limitations that this unique international alliance sets in play vis-à-vis
the peace process. It was a valuable exercise; and all was witnessed by a global
audience. The US-Israel chemistry was showcased, but the “magic moment” was
missed. The prime minister would fly home atop a surge in the polls so great
that it drowned out cautious punditry warning of a future price to pay for the
momentary elation. Both sides remained firmly perched in their favorite
trees, each leader refusing to climb down in order to sit together, but each
taking in the demonstrative realities of the day.
Like the matter of
Hamas sitting in a Palestinian unity government. A Palestinian entrepreneur told
The Media Line she felt it was “arrogant” for the US and Israel to dictate who
is an appropriate government partner among Palestinians. But as long as Hamas
remains on the American list of terrorist organizations, the unity government is
off-limits by virtue of US law. So while some scenarios are being suggested in
which the administration acts to modify that reality in order to embrace the new
government, last week’s events should disabuse anyone of the belief that the
administration could even consider removing Hamas from the terror
Even before the first speech, the Palestinian strategic September
gambit weighed heavily on both streets. If unsuccessful in its original intent
to compel Israeli concessions on the US-brokered track, the unquestionable
resonance that the plan to ask the United Nations to sanction statehood in
September is enjoying remains unnerving to Israelis.
Yair, a former
military officer, told The Media Line that within his right-leaning circle of
friends lurks the fear that unless Netanyahu acts now to secure the best deal he
can, his successor will give away the farm.
“Bibi should know the price
of peace,” he said. “And we will lose if he doesn’t act
Post-speechmaking, Netanyahu’s red lines and Obama’s admonitions,
nothing has changed. In fact, the Obama and Netanyahu speeches were probably the
final factors convincing Palestinian leadership to push on with their September
Nimir Khalouf, former head of the WAFA news agency, summed up the
perspective on the street when he explained that Palestinians prefer to get back
to negotiations with clear goals and timetables.
“If America and Europe
fail to push for a return to negotiations,” he said, “the only alternative left
is the United Nations.”
The same unabashed warmth on the part of Congress
that so buoyed Israelis and sent Netanyahu’s approval soaring reinforced to the
Palestinian street the commonly- held belief that the US-Israel relationship
leaves no room for them and that their fortunes are better pursued before a more
friendly and sympathetic crowd in Turtle Bay.
After the speeches,
Israel’s sense of doom has largely dissipated and Palestinian determination at
pursuing the UN option has been empowered. Nothing has changed on the ground,
and the future remains as cloudy as it was before speeches. As exciting as the
sense of theater was to watch, many wish the leaders would retreat behind closed
doors, where progress is at least possible.
And now that the politicians
have had their opportunities to play to the home crowd and impress each other
with their relative strengths, some are suggesting that it’s time for Obama to
come to the region and stroll both sides of the streets – perhaps joined by each
leader viewing his opposite’s position: Prime Minister Netanyahu in the West
Bank and President Abbas in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The writer is
president and CEO of The Media Line, an American news agency specializing in
coverage of the Middle East. Felice–firstname.lastname@example.org